I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Langston Hughes penned the poignant “I, Too, Sing, America” nearly a century ago, and with Solange Knowles’ new offering, A Seat at the Table, the artist finds her rightful place in Hughes’ vision of a triumphant tomorrow. Solange takes her seat at a pivotal time in entertainment history, beside an influx of artists celebrating black humanity in all its multi-faceted glory. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, Donald Glover, Issa Rae, and big sister Beyoncé Knowles have all put out works that offer refreshingly honest, unrepressed looks at black life in America. This ushering in of a new black awakening couldn’t be more on-time, as the current climate in America features black people publicly perishing with alarming regularity. And so the theme of this current movement—broader in scope than the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Power movement—is simple yet sweeping: humanity in the key of black. We are human and we are black and we are here, steadily loosing ourselves in the emotional and physical bondage that comes with the territory of being blessedly black in America. And here, in the midst of this movement affirming black life, is an acoustic open-book of Knowles’ life journey as she, a young black woman, navigates through this wild and weary world, ultimately claiming a seat in her own home.
Calling ASATT a meditation on black life would be accurate, but reductive. Yes, blackness is a powerful point of focus on the album, but Solange gives us so much more. Each track offers a glimpse into the journey of a spirit seeking peace, a particularly demanding excursion when that spirit is housed in black skin. There is a taste of Lemonade throughout ASATT, most noticeable in the shared theme of the journey to peace and acceptance, outlined as stages of grief in Lemonade, but more loosely defined in ASATT. Solange’s twenty-one tracks can be grouped into three themes: the search for peace, interrupters of peace, and finding peace through empowering love of self. Woven throughout these ideas is the shiny thread of black womanhood, an integral part of the lens through which Solange views the world.
ASATT opens with “Rise,” a dreamy, chant-like introduction that begins with Solange’s floaty soprano singing “fall in your ways, so you can sleep at night” and ends with the declaration “walk in your ways, so you will wake up and rise.” This message of being true to yourself through good and bad sets the tone for the beginning of the album’s focus on the quest for peace of mind. This message culminates with the first of several spoken interludes featuring No Limit founder and self-made mogul Percy “Master P” Miller. His familiar southern baritone drawls, “Everybody is always talking about peace, but, as long you find peace in what you doing, then you successful, and that’s what people don’t realize. See, you gotta do stuff ‘till where you can go sleep at night. Cause the glory is, is in you.” Solange’s decision to include Master P, an important Louisianan figure, stems from the Knowles’ familial ties to the state. Solange’s mother and maternal grandparents lived in the small city of New Iberia, and Solange made the trek back to her roots, choosing to record ASATT there. The saying “you don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been” certainly rings true for Solange, who felt that the journey to self-discovery begins with recognizing where you come from.
The Master P interlude segues into the most moving piece on the album, “Cranes in the Sky.” It opens with simple drums and beautifully melancholic strings while Solange wistfully lists the arbitrary measures she took to keep sadness at bay: “I ran my credit card bill up, thought a new dress would make it better. I tried to work it away, but that just made me even sadder.” The lyrics—evocative of Nikki Giovanni in their complex simplicity—succinctly express the underlying goal of trying to cover a gaping wound with a band-aid: attempting to seek peace through the confusion of distraction and self-medication.
We then begin the middle section with an interlude simply titled “Dad was Mad.” In this brief moment between songs, we hear Solange’s father casually recounting the traumatic experience of being one of the first blacks to integrate a school in Alabama. After describing his childhood as filled with integration, segregation, and racism, he ends with “I was angry for years.” How often do we think of our parents’ experiences in the world and how they have molded them, ultimately shaping their children? Both in this brief interlude and in interviews, Solange brings up the oft-neglected issue of trauma in the black community being passed down through generations. She is doing the hard work required on the journey towards peace, and thus begins the sounds of blackness that are integral to the album.
This segment features tracks like “Don’t You Wait,” a message to white critics objecting to the inclusion of race in ASATT, preferring the light-hearted, poppy Solange of 2012’s True. There’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a powerful message to those who feel as though black bodies are undeserving of boundaries and respect, a historical idea that dwells in the land of entitlement and lingers in every unpermitted touch of a perfectly picked-out afro. Solange ain’t having it, which leads us into yet another great piece affirming our right to just be, “F.U.B.U.” Here Solange creates an aural “safe space,” a term heavily mocked but needed in these times where black death is the order of the day. The opening melody features an uneasy chromaticism that eventually finds its tonal home at the end of the phrase, where the lyrics confidently resonate that “this shit is for us.” The chorus declares, “All my niggas in the whole wide world, made this song to make it all y’all’s turn, for us, this shit is for us.” Who wasn’t rocking with FUBU in its glory days at the dawn of a new millennium? The big, bold logo proudly pronounced to the world that the men who made the clothes were us. Not an elderly white man, but four young black men who made us proud to rock their creations. Solange recreates this feeling of pride in “F.U.B.U.,” making it a standout track on ASATT.
The conclusion of the album is more joyous, signaling closer proximity to peace and its kinfolk, happiness and love. All is not sunshine and chocolate rivers, evidenced by the melancholy that still tints the closing tracks, but true peace exists even in the midst of turmoil. Solange reminds us of our people’s ability to have joy despite pain. We are experts at defiantly shining our light in the face of racism and hatred, and though I initially struggled to understand why Solange would close ASATT with the moody and modal “Scales,” Master P’s interludes that open and close the track—“Pedestals” and “Chosen Ones” respectively—shed more light on the importance of a song dedicated to the kings of the streets, the tragic heroes whom the hood place on a pedestal while the outside world looks on with scorn. The opening chords are shimmery yet unresolved, the instrumental echoing the sentiment of the text, which venerates the street superstar while acknowledging that “the world says you’re a failure.” But as Master P so proudly proclaims as he closes ASATT, amongst victorious horns reminiscent of a Spike Lee soundtrack, “now, we come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty, and able to show that we are truly the chosen ones.”
Despite what the world may say, we must hold this truth to be self-evident. And Solange’s ASATT, a healing manual for black humanity, does a stupendous job of reminding us to take our rightful place at the table.